Need equitable school funding model

by Claudia Sarbit

Would it be fair if the provincial sales tax was 10 per cent when shopping in St. James, but just six per cent when shopping in River Heights?  

Would it be fair if a Linden Woods or Whyte Ridge resident had to endure a lengthy wait and pay an additional fee for an important medical procedure, but those living in other parts of the city could have the same procedure without waiting and at no additional cost?

Welcome to the bizarre world of provincial education financing where significant inequities exist between school divisions.  

Although Seven Oaks School Division has the lowest per pupil cost among all the school divisions in Winnipeg, its taxes are higher than St. James, Louis Riel and Pembina Trails school divisions, which all outspend Seven Oaks.

The Manitoba Association of School Trustees and local school boards have lobbied the provincial government for less reliance on property taxes to fund education. Presently, a high percentage of school division budgets are borne by local taxpayers. 

Taxpayers residing in divisions with higher levels of commercial properties pay less in school taxes than taxpayers in divisions like River East-Transcona with comparatively fewer commercial properties. For example, as incredible as it may seem, a homeowner in North Kildonan in River East-Transcona School Division pays more school taxes than a homeowner in Fort Garry in Pembina Trails School Division even though their homes have identical assessed values. A homeowner in West Kildonan in Seven Oaks School Division pays significantly more in school taxes than a homeowner in St. James with a home at the same assessed value.  

The inequity is further exacerbated by the level of expenditure per pupil for each school division. Seven Oaks School Division spends less per pupil than any other school division in Winnipeg, but still has the second highest school taxes. If it had Louis Riel School Division’s commercial tax base, it would be able to cut its school taxes by over three mills or increase its expenditure by $3.6 million. If it had St. James’ commercial tax base, it would be able to cut its school taxes by over seven mills or increase its expenditure by $10 million.

Manitobans count on the provincial government— through its funding formula — to provide equal opportunities for all students across the province and to correct any existing inequities. It is puzzling that the province has not 

been able to correct the unfairness mentioned earlier, despite repeated 

lobbying efforts with local MLAs, the minister of education and the minister of finance.  

In fact, Manitoba is the only province in Canada where this kind of inequity exists.  Most provinces have established a uniform provincial mill rate and disburse funds to school boards on a basis that is fair and equitable. Saskatchewan, similar to Manitoba, has school taxes set by local boards but adjusts provincial funding to compensate for the differences in tax sources to ensure fairness to students and taxpayers.

In this year’s education funding announcement, the provincial government provided a significant increase to school divisions. The trustees of the Seven Oaks School Board were optimistic that their lobbying efforts would pay off and that the inequities would be addressed.  It was a disappointment to find out that the gap between divisions had in fact widened.  

Low-spending divisions such as Seven Oaks and River East-Transcona with low costs per pupil and small commercial tax bases had to raise school taxes, while several higher spending divisions were able to freeze their already low mill rates.   

It is predictable that the recent announcement by the minister of education to continue the Tax Incentive Grant — Seven Oaks and several other divisions do not qualify — will widen the gap even more next year.

At their April convention, the Manitoba Association of School Trustees overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for a funding model that is equitable, flexible and sustainable that supports student learning and high levels of achievement for all students.

While the provincial government has made positive changes by increasing education funding and limiting property tax increases, it now  needs to move quickly to correct the inequities that exist between school divisions.  

Let’s pay fair!

(Claudia Sarbit is a REALTOR®, 

a member of the WinnipegREALTORS® civic and legislative affairs committee, and vice-chair of the Seven Oaks School Board.)